Girl em[Power]ment – A Series of Short Essays.
a continuation of Dr. Ro Di Brezzo’s profile, with extended and off-the-record questions.
Q: Did you see a difference living in the different areas of the country of how people in general acted towards women?
A: While at Indiana University I had a cork board, and right in the middle was a picture of a man, from the New York paper, walking down wall street completely nude-wearing nothing but black socks and black dress shoes. The thing that was so crazy about the picture was not that this guy was nude walking down the street, but that all the people weren’t even looking at him. In New York, no one cares. So I grew up around that culture. There were so many differences, that nothing was different. At some level it encourages a higher tolerance, because people don’t look the same. They don’t act the same. You just realize that there’s a lot of ways to live.
When I moved to the Midwest I noticed there was no ethnic differences. But people were connected different in smaller cities than they are in New York. In NY, you’re connected in a sense that everyone values everyone’s privacy. So you don’t take a lot of time when talking to people or take up a lot of space. In these other cities, there’s a different sense of community. The people in NY rally around politics or sports, or something local that’s happening. In smaller communities, it’s tighter at some level but they do talk about each other.
Q: I remember at The Empowerment Project, you said you had written in a few publications, could you talk about that a little bit?
A: While on faculty, you can’t get tenure if you don’t write. And I was always interested in women, physiologically and mechanically, and when you read the literature – especially years ago, there was not much written about women. If there was, it was always about college-aged kids – and we would give them extra points-but life goes on after college, and I was interested in what happens after that. I’ve written a couple chapters in books, I’ve written quite a bit of research articles. During my career I found myself getting more and more interested in older women. It’s interesting because it’s “not cool” to get old if you’re an American, in every other culture, getting old is something that’s really valued. But in the American culture, we do a lot to look and act and sound younger. It’s kind of unfortunate, I think. I think we’re afraid of getting old – I think we’re afraid of looking old, we’re afraid of dying-a whole lot of things. But I’m intrigued. For me, it’s really fascinating how some people grow old cynically while some people grow old gracefully. Trying to figure that out is actually fascinating! It really is interesting how some people get old with this grace and wisdom about them, while others get old angrily.
Q: Do you feel like in other countries, getting older for women is viewed as something that has to do with gaining wisdom, as opposed to the American way?
A: Oh yes for sure. I have white hair, and throughout the years people have commented about my hair-and I suspect that if I colored it I would look younger, and people that do color their hair do look good, but for me it’s just-do I want to do that every 6 weeks for two weeks? And inevitably I wouldn’t plan [my appointments] and then my roots would be all over the place-so I just didn’t do it. It’s just interesting how people comment about it, and how it’s one of the things we do to look young. As opposed to looking healthy and happy, people worry about looking young. And in our culture-where are our old people – where are they on TV? In the media? They’re not around. Even when we sell products to older people, the people buying the products aren’t really the ones on TV. They’re not the ones who’ve actually fallen down and can’t get up.
During my other job, I worked with physically impaired individuals, and that’s another aspect that isn’t represented in the media. We’ve been at war for a long time now, and have had so many veterans that are coming back, and we see so many veterans with one leg or some kind of prosthesis. But before that, you didn’t really see people that were a-typical. Yet we know they’re there, so it’s an interesting culture-it’s almost like we feel bad if we see someone who looks different. We have a tendency to where we don’t want to stare but we kind of do want to stare, and I think that’s more American. I don’t think that’s as common in other cultures, where people are integrated better. In the absence of seeing it, it’s hard to see what it’s like-or to know it or live it if it’s not in front of you. I think that’s why it’s so hard for women and girls. They grow up thinking of these models-they know that they’re airbrushed, kids know it-but it doesn’t mean anything, because they’re not seeing them airbrushed. They know intellectually that they’re doing makeup and covering up imperfections, but they still see perfection-therefore thinking that they should be perfect. We’re starting to see shows like The Voice, where they don’t see the person’s appearance at first-and maybe because that’s such a hit and the message is so powerful maybe others will follow, little by little. It’s hard.
Q: Do you think other countries have a better handle on women’s portrayal in the media?
A: Of course it’s a dilemma all over the world, but in other countries grandparents are so involved with the family. You see grandparents a lot more-in America some people see their grandparents and some don’t. You don’t see that as much in Europe. Houses tend to stay in families for generations. There’s more of intergenerational stuff, and when there’s more intergenerational stuff you see people more realistically. Here, media is so powerful – and I suspect it is in other places, but just not as much. It’s so commercialized.
Q: Have you dealt with any negativity in the workplace because you are a woman?
A: I think when discrimination is over; it’s painful – but the only advantage is that it’s in your face. In my situation, I think more times than not, the subtleness of how people react to a women, it’s even more insidious – it’s even more dangerous. You’re always sitting there wondering if you got this promotion because I’m a woman, or was I added to this conversation because I’m a woman? Sometimes the problem isn’t men, sometimes the problem is we as women – is our expectation for these men. We obviously say different things to boys than we say to girls – we expect them to be strong, and we’re comforted when they take over a situation – but we’re frustrated when they do take over that situation. I think the conversations have to be parallel. We need to be talking to our little boys as much as we’re talking to our little girls.
I think we have to make it safe for both of them to come a little closer to the middle. If we have a boy that doesn’t want to play sports-the world is not going to come to the end. I think the conversations have to change so that it’s ok for our boys not to always have it all together. And then the other point is that we really have to teach people to find the inner “I’m going to be okay”. When the whole world goes to hell and a hand basket, we’ve got to have that little voice inside that says “this is a feeling and it’s going to pass and tomorrows going to be a good day”.
When we need external reinforcement, we’re doomed to fail. We need external feedback, but that’s different than external reinforcement. Girls shouldn’t ‘tell me I’m okay’; I need to know that I’m okay.
Q: Do you feel like social media and media in general is bad for younger girls?
A: Social media always has and always will have a responsibility. We used to think smoking was glamorous-it was in every movie, everyone looked sexy while they were doing it. When we realized how bad it was for us, it was a conscious decision to pull back from that. With that being said, I’m frustrated with how when something happens-and you listen to it on the media on two different news channels, how different the same event or quote will be reported. How can that be? It’s their job to report what happened – not to editorialize. We’ll have a debate – say the president makes a state of the union address, and then we listen to TV where the guy tells us what he just said. You don’t have to tell me what he just said, I just listened to this?
I think we keep waiting for things to get more and more digestible. If something happens and it takes an hour, I want you to tell me in twelve seconds or less. Make it palatable; make it understandable – and then what’s the new story. They’ll take a sentence from a political candidate, and then you’ll see it on the TV over and over again. But there’s a whole story on this sentence, so can they not report the whole story for why they said that? People don’t have any patience for that anymore. We’re all hurting and I don’t understand where we’re going, because we’re not going to get there any faster.
This is what I love about getting older, people talk about the meaning of life – and don’t think I’m going to say something profound. What I do know is that what we’re doing right now in the moment! It’s sort of like we’re all waiting for something big to come, and this is it, today! There is never enough, and it took me a really long time to figure that out. You don’t even realize you’re doing it. I had a really good friend that was in the doctoral program with me who was a few years younger than me, and almost overnight we found out she had stage four cancer and lasted two months. Here we are just working our asses off in the doctoral program – it’s all about when we get out, when, when, when. Then a few years ago, my brother’s son was killed in a car accident. He was a junior engineering student – a bright kid, he played the sax, was a surfer. When I did the eulogy, which was one of the hardest things I ever did, I just looked out in the crowd and said some people are not meant to be on this earth a very long time. So you really don’t have any of these guarantees. Anytime something traumatic happens we slow up for a day, maybe a week-and then we get back into it. It’s crazy, because this is it-have a good time today.
So it’s that time of year again when March Madness is happening. Instead of thinking about the destination, which would be winning, why don’t we think about the journey it took to get there? Or for spring break – you’ll drive 20 hours to get somewhere. Shouldn’t that be part of the destination also? People drive really fast to get there, we should enjoy the journey.
Check back next Sunday for another Girl em[Power]ment profile!